The Anti-Aging Food Rainbow

It's even better than finding the proverbial pot of gold—discovering the key to a
younger, more vital you. The path to antiaging riches lies in eating from a full spectrum
of fresh fruits and vegetables so you can enjoy multicolored health.

By Lisa James

March 2005

A lonely Kermit the Frog once sang about finding the rainbow connection to a world outside his isolated pond, a desire that led him to seek adventure on the open road. The yearning to fight the ravages of age also entails a rainbow connection—the rainbow of colors found in fresh produce. From ravishing reds to gorgeous greens to bodacious blues, enjoying Nature’s full palette of flavorful food plants can help in your adventurous quest to overcome aging.

Exactly how do fruits and vegetables affect aging? One answer says that the nutrients in plants affect genes, those little information packets tucked away in DNA; every minute of every day, the zillions of genes in your body’s cells switch on and off in a meticulously calibrated code of life. “You must have adequate intake of vitamins B3, B6 and folic acid to make DNA,” says Jack Challem, veteran health writer and author of Feed Your Genes Right (Wiley). “If you cannot make new DNA, you will be left with only damaged, old or malfunctioning DNA—giving your cells the wrong instructions.” Other nutrients also help genes do their signaling thing.

Fresh produce is packed with gene-fortifying vitamins and minerals, nutrients that you lose the ability to process with age. For example, your body produces only 40% of the vitamin D at age 70 that it did when you were a child, and your need for B vitamins and calcium goes up as well. (What’s more, plant foods have less of the stuff you don’t need, like sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol.) A lot of these nutrients—like the vitamin C in oranges—are antioxidants, important warriors in the antiaging fight. Part of produce’s health-promoting power resides in phytonutrients, substances that interact with DNA even as they give plants those eye-catching colors. And if all that wasn’t enough, these foods abound in natural enzymes that aid digestion.

Vegetables and fruits can be grouped by where they fall on the color spectrum.

Code Red for Health

Red, the color of heartfelt passion, is also the color of hearty health. Lycopene, the red stuff in tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit, has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease among women; among men, eating lycopene-rich tomatoes appears to protect aging prostates against cancer. According to Jack Challem, lycopene acts as both an antioxidant (free-radical fighter) and a regulator of genetic activity. (To extract the most lycopene from your tomatoes, cook them in a little oil, or use tomato paste.)

Lycopene is just one member of the carotenoid family, which lends its reddish-orange hues to nearly all the foods at this end of the spectrum. The best-known carotenoid is beta-carotene, found in carrots, pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Not only does beta-carotene act as a first-rate antioxidant and precursor to vitamin A, it also “influences the activity of a key cancer-suppressing gene, known as p21,” says Challem. “Experiments have found that active p21 genes actually turn off a separate gene that promotes the growth of cancer-causing cells.”

Like lycopene, the beta-carotene in food is more readily available after cooking (but if you want to nibble on raw carrots as a naturally sweet snack, we’re not going to stop you). Other antiaging carotenoid kin include alpha-carotene, found in carrots, pumpkin, and red and yellow peppers, and cryptoxanthin, in nectarines, papayas, peaches and oranges. Oranges and other citrus fruits are also rich in citrus flavonoids, such as hesperidin and limonene, that are strutting their stuff against cancer in studies.

Grateful for Greens

Green: The very word conjures up images of youthful springtime. So it’s not surprising that green foods have been hailed as anti-aging superstars. One big reason is chlorophyll, the substance that puts the green in green plants, which is widely appreciated for its powerful ability to help the body detoxify itself.

But the leading celebrity of the green-food world is…broccoli. Yep—plain-Jane broccoli has undergone an extreme image makeover, now that scientists have discovered what a nutritional powerhouse it is. Broccoli not only has more vitamin C than an orange and as much calcium as milk, but it also contains flavonoids called isothiocyanates (try saying that three times fast) that help the body kick-start its own cancer defenses. Broccoli is a member of a large gang—including cabbage, kale, bok choy and Brussels sprouts—all of which appear to share at least some of broccoli’s cancer-fighting proclivities.

For staying star power, however, nothing beats garlic. The “stinking rose,” as a medieval wag called it, comes up sweet in the anti-aging sweepstakes. Garlic is a great source of selenium, an antioxidant mineral with cancer-protective effects. Garlic has also been long used to help keep cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats) at healthy levels.

A lack of fat is one advantage of green plant foods. The avocado is a delicious exception; its buttery flesh is rich in monounsaturated oil, one of the healthy fats. That lets avocado tantalize the tongue without doing nutritional harm, as long as you don’t overindulge—a four-ounce serving contains 200 calories. But at least it atones by also providing healthy helpings of potassium and folate, among other vitamins and minerals.

The green group even steals some red-food thunder in the form of lutein, a carotenoid found in spinach, kale and collard greens, where it’s yellow hue is masked by chlorophyll. Lutein and another yellow carotenoid, zeaxanthin, aid aging eyes by helping them ward off macular degeneration, a sight-robbing disorder in which the center of the retina, the macula, suffers UV damage after years of sun exposure.

True Blue Nutrition

The blue food group may be the smallest of the three, but its members are making a big splash in nutrition research. It started several years ago when scientists noticed that the French, who enjoyed a rich diet while imbibing considerable quantities of wine, also enjoyed a lower risk of death from heart disease and certain cancers. Experimental inquiry revealed that red grapes—from which most French wines are distilled—contain a compound called resveratrol that exerted genetic anti-cancer effects. What’s more, grapes, despite their sweet juiciness, are low in calories, making them a perfect anti-aging snack.

But the most exciting blue-food research centers on the berry family. These luscious fruits take their striking colors from a group of flavonoids called anthocyanins, high-powered antioxidants that have demonstrated impressive cancer-fighting power. Flavonoids have also shown an ability to strengthen tiny blood vessels called capillaries—weepy capillaries cause easy bruising and bleeding gums—and to enhance the action of vitamin C. In addition, blueberries, like their red cranberry cousins, help the urinary tract fight off infection, a problem that bedevils many older women.

The colorful message: If you’re trying to elude aging, eat a rainbow of fruits and veggies to connect with your younger self. Who knows—maybe you’ll run into Kermit on the high road to adventure!

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